Although industrialization, on the whole, has been advantageous for humanity, it has been taxing on the environment, and coupled with the accelerated pace of climate change, it is a crisis whose proportions are not debatable any longer.

Arnab Ghosh, our next pathbreaker, works as Research Chemist at Carus (Illinois, United States), a company that develops specialty chemical products like blended phosphates, polymers and catalysts to clean our air, water and soil.

Arnab talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of New Mexico on finding alternate catalyst technologies that would not only survive automotive exhaust treatment but also enhance the exhaust conversion efficiency to cleaner gases !

For students, whether it is cleaning the air coming out of our cars, purifying the drinking water from our municipalities, or cleaning the soil for our crops, the goals are all the same, which is environmental remediation.

Arnab, Your background?

I was born and raised in the city of joy, Kolkata. My mother is a homemaker, and my father was a banker (currently retired). So, I grew up with numbers around me. Growing up in Kolkata in such a cosmopolitan culture definitively instilled a sense of inquisitiveness that still runs in me today. 

Childhood mostly swung from playing cricket with friends in the neighborhood to camping in and around Bengal with a local chapter called “South Calcutta Trekkers Association”. My father was also a Physics major, so I grew up with books on Thermodynamics, Heat, and the Atlas, tons of Atlas, and maps adorned our house.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I enjoyed setting up problems through equations, and so I naturally wanted to study Physics. I got admission at NISER, Bhubaneswar which is under the DAE umbrella, and pursued Physics as a major with a minor in Chemistry for BS+MS. 

I did my masters in Nanoscience and Microsystems Engineering and PhD in Chemical Engineering from The University of New Mexico (UNM).

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I was enamored with particle physics and material science in my 4th year because I truly enjoyed both at that point. This development in my interests peaked with the numerous summer projects that I was associated with in research institutes across the country. Eventually I decided on nano-magnetism as my master’s thesis as I wanted to do something applied for my future. 

Towards the end of my studies at NISER, I wanted to pursue nanoscience, and applied to the University of New Mexico for my PhD in Nanoscience and Microsystems Engineering, specifically in Chemical Engineering under Prof. Abhaya Datye. I graduated in 2021.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I did 2 internships in high-energy physics, one at IIT Bhubaneswar and the other at Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Kolkata which piqued my interest in particle physics. Definitely, lectures by Feynman played a key role in developing my interests. 

I always felt that for a PhD, it is more important to choose a PhD advisor, a group and a research topic than just looking at universities. I knew that in order to tackle the climate change crisis, I would need a lot of tools in my kit. Hence, moving towards chemical engineering provided me with that extra leverage. Although UNM was an offbeat choice, it worked for me since my advisor had worked on the topic of heterogeneous catalysis for years, and was a Distinguished Professor in the Chemical Engineering department. I had applied for the PhD program and I received the Whitten Fellowship from the school of engineering which took care of my expenses for the first year and subsequently, I was put on Research Assistantship. 

During my PhD, my advisor had a lot of influence on my outlook toward research and how to define interesting problems to work on. My research thesis primarily revolved around emission control catalysts for diesel oxidation. I did two internships over the course of 3 years for roughly a year in total, at General Motors in Detroit, Michigan in their after-treatment department which gave me fundamental insights about some of the problems that were relevant to solve. An aftertreatment system is a method or device for reducing harmful exhaust emissions from internal-combustion engines. In other words, it is a device that cleans exhaust gases to ensure the engines meet emission regulations

Building relationships with people working in the industry for a long time and being able to spend time with them and pick at their brains was also paramount for my own development. I would like to mention Dr. Wei Li, my manager at GM along with long-time collaborators Dr. Se Oh and Dr. Gongshin Qi who was also on my PhD committee. 

My PhD primarily revolved on finding alternate catalyst technologies that would survive automotive exhaust treatment. There are “small” (1/100000the the size of human hair) precious metal particles such as Platinum and Palladium that form the lining of the catalytic convertor in our cars. These particles convert harmful gases like carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen emanating from the internal combustion engines into cleaner gases. But the problem is, these particles, over the duration of use, grow “big” (micron sizes) and lose surface area and reactivity which leads to reduced efficiency of conversion of the harmful gases spewing toxic fumes. My research focused on how to keep the sizes of particles small and well dispersed throughout the harsh treatment of the ICE (internal combustion engines). 

How did you get your first break?

Getting into NISER and the 5 years I spent over there had a substantial influence on me , which initially shaped my intellect. The rigor in science was beautiful and that definitely nudged me towards this career. 

Visa related issues for finding a job in the US is always challenging for non immigrants. Nowadays, there are several good candidates even within the US, and companies are increasingly becoming hesitant to hire outside talent. Since the visa issue is out of my hands, I did not ponder over it for too much as I couldn’t do much about it anyway. My thought regarding the matter was to focus on presenting clearly what I brought to the table and show the best of my abilities. The interview process was actually pretty long, it took around 5 months and lots of interview rounds, and eventually an onsite interview for the whole day before I was offered the job. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

From an academic standpoint, technical challenges have been a part of my career and I would say that staying with your research problem is the only way out of that, probably not with the same mindset that led you to that question. 

Another challenge has been staying away from my home, family, and friends in Kolkata. The only way to kind of minimize that effect was to visit them as frequently as possible over years and vice-versa. Finding the right goal is important not only for a sustainable career but also to succeed in it. The idea is to keep re-discovering that goal as it will change during the formative years.  

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am a Research Chemist with Carus, which is about an hour and a half away from Chicago. I solve problems that address how to clean our environment. 

Carus develops specialty chemical products such as potassium permanganate, blended phosphates, polymers and catalysts to clean our air, water and soil.

What’s a typical day like?

I usually plan ahead of time on the previous day, as to what needs to be done that is the most demanding at the beginning of the next day. I like to have no meetings if possible before 11 am, because plowing through the most demanding task is usually tackled best in the morning when I get to work. Afternoons are dynamic and they can involve meetings, reading, or deep-diving into new ideas for the upcoming week or day. I always like to keep half an hour in the later part of the day to prepare for the next day, usually with sticky notes. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Although industrialization, on the whole, has been advantageous for humanity, it has been taxing on the environment, and coupled with the accelerated pace of climate change, it is a crisis whose proportions are not debatable any longer. The work that I do at Carus particularly focuses on cleaning the air coming out of our cars, purifying the drinking water from our municipalities better, or cleaning the soil for our crops, from a remediation standpoint, through catalysis. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

All of them are very fondly remembered by me, I wouldn’t want to single out any of them. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

After high school, as you move on to universities and college, try to unlearn many things that you have been taught. Form your own opinion irrespective of your background, it is very important to reinvent the wheel. Recognize your biases and be true to yourself and try to be your own harshest critic. When you do that, any outside noise can’t bring you down. Most importantly, spread the joy. We are all travelers floating on a rock, so enjoy.

Future Plans?

I would like to see myself help grow this space of climate change in whatever capacity I can. Most importantly, I will work on myself to try to be humbler and more grounded as a human being.